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Dodge County group joins lawsuit against EPA alleging inaction on livestock pollution regulations

"The problems we're experiencing in Dodge County are problems that are being faced in community after community in rural America," said a member of Dodge County Concerned Citizens, one of the petitioners in the case.

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"We don’t drink the water from the well," said Douglas Eayrs, pictured with his wife, Sonja Trom Eayrs. The water at Eayrs’ childhood home near West Concord was undrinkable due to high levels of nitrates.
Post Bulletin file photo
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DODGE COUNTY — A Dodge County organization is one of several petitioners in a recently filed lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The new lawsuit follows a 2017 petition asking the EPA to strengthen its regulations around concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, the pollution from which "devastates waterways across the country," the petitioners argue.

"Here we are, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and we have over 5,400 impaired waterways in the state of Minnesota," said Sonja Eayrs, an attorney and member of Dodge County Concerned Citizens. "How bad does that have to get before people start paying attention to what's happening here?"

It's a personal issue for Eayrs, who has been dealing with impaired waters on family property in Dodge County for years.

"My family's been fighting industrial agriculture for years, and 20 years ago, we fought the installation of what would have been the largest dairy operation in the state of Minnesota, just a few miles north of our farm," Sonja Eayrs said.

Though that dairy farm never came to be, Eayrs said swine farms in the area are to blame for water pollution in area waterways including the Cedar River. Southeast Minnesota's karst topography — defined by the prevalence of limestone, shallow topsoil and vulnerability for sinkholes — makes area waterways more prone to pollution.

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After facing inaction on the issue from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the EPA, Eayrs and Dodge County Concern Citizens joined other petitioners from Iowa, North Carolina, South Dakota and more in a 2017 petition against the EPA.

"The problems we're experiencing in Dodge County are problems that are being faced in community after community in rural America," Eayrs said.

BERNE — "We definitely do not drink the water, for coffee or anything," said Sonja Eayrs. "It isn’t safe for human consumption."

The 2017 petition asks the EPA to strengthen its regulation of CAFOs to protect water quality, said Tarah Heinzen, legal director for Food & Water Watch, another petitioner in the lawsuit. The new case, filed in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 7, 2022, aims to compel the EPA to act on the 2017 petition — essentially, the petitioners are now suing the EPA because the agency has taken too long to respond to the first petition.

"Procedurally, we have to go through this step of compelling EPA to give us a final answer one way or the other," Heinzen said. "And then if we don't like that final answer, we then can move forward and challenge that decision substantively."

Since filing the new petition, Heinzen said her team has heard from the EPA, and they are interested in a mediation process.

"We're hoping, through mediation, to agree to a timeline, get that final answer from the EPA that we've been waiting for for almost six years, and then see what the EPA plans to do, if anything, about this problem," Heinzen said. "I'm very optimistic that we'll be able to negotiate an answer to this petition with EPA and move forward, because action on this industry and its pollution is long overdue."

Around 140 Winona County residents signed the letter asking Gov. Tim Walz to meet with the community to discuss the July 26 fish kill near Lewiston.

The two major action items for the EPA listed in the =2017 petition, per Heinzen, would strengthen Clean Water Act permitting regulations for CAFOs by closing the agricultural stormwater loophole, and having the EPA establish a common-sense presumption that certain CAFOs discharge pollution based on their design or operation practices.

"We propose a lot of common-sense reforms to strengthen the regulations that apply to all of these facilities, including just prohibiting practices that we know lead to water pollution," Heinzen said. "Currently, EPA doesn't even prohibit spreading untreated waste on snow-covered and frozen ground. ... The idea that this is protective of water quality is really ludicrous."

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Inaction by regulatory agencies is part of the problem, said Eayrs. She recalls a time when she and other Dodge County residents fought the installation of a swine facility and a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources official looked at the region's hydrology.

"He told the citizens privately that he didn't believe that anything like this, that a factory farm, should be installed on that type of topography," Eayrs said. "But he wouldn't go to any public meetings, and he wouldn't speak out publicly and told the citizens that the last guy who did that lost his job. That's what I think is going on — these regulators are pressured by the industry."

If the EPA ultimately implements the petitioners' suggestions for reducing water pollution from CAFOs, Heinzen said those actions would result in a significant reduction in pollution entering waterways. But that wouldn't let the agency off the hook.

"EPA has an ongoing obligation to review its pollution standards every year, over time," Heinzen said. "It should be an iterative process for the agency, not just a one-time update to its rules."

Heinzen added that she would like to see the EPA take an environmental justice approach to these regulations as well, since certain communities and watersheds are disproportionately impacted by water pollution.

An EPA spokesperson told the Post Bulletin that the EPA has nothing to add, as this is pending litigation.

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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